November 14, 2006
By RICK GREEN, Courant Staff Writer
They're trying something radically different at a handful of Hartford schools: teaching the teachers about reading instruction.
There are 8,457 reasons why this is a good idea.
That's how many third-graders across the state read at a "below basic" level. Before we see any change in this, we've got to train our teachers to work with these classrooms of children who lack essential language skills.
It isn't happening. But since we are facing an absolute crisis in reading, it's important to recognize what is promising. Listen to what one teacher says.
"I'm feeling more confident now in teaching reading," Fran Murphy, a first-grade teacher at Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School, told me. "It's not stuff that's really specifically taught in college."
Murphy's talking about a small program funded by an $844,000 grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving that emphasizes an instruction model created by New Haven's Haskins Laboratories, a private institute that studies speech, language and reading.
It's based on extensive research that demonstrates that young children who are behind can catch up. The Haskins strategy spends a lot of time on phonics, building basic vocabulary and learning about the sounds that make up words. For children lacking in oral language skills, it's essential.
"Teachers really don't know how to teach language," said Linda Liss-Bronstein, who oversees the Haskins program at Webster and Rawson schools.
At the start of the school year, about 55 percent of first-graders at Noah Webster were considered "high risk" because of their reading skills. After eight weeks, the number dropped to 15 percent.
"They are reading more. They are looking for every opportunity to read. You can't stop kids who love books from reading."
So why aren't we doing more to teach our teachers about reading?
Richard Schwab, the dean of the highly regarded Neag School of Education at UConn, told me they are doing plenty, including emphasizing the latest research on reading and literacy.
But Education Commissioner George Coleman still isn't satisfied.
"I'm very concerned about the level of instruction teachers get on teaching that fundamental skill," Coleman said.
Critics say schools of education at our state universities don't offer much beyond basic courses in reading, let alone the kind of training needed to work with children who show up in school with poor language skills.
A recent report found elementary school teachers don't even know much about Connecticut's "blueprint" for reading, which outlines what children should know and when - and what skills teachers need to teach.
"The teacher is the critical variable in making sure kids learn to read. It makes or breaks the kid," said Margie Gillis, a senior scientist at Haskins. "If you don't learn to read by the end of first grade, you may learn to read but statistically the chances of catching up to your peers are slim."
We spend millions of tax dollars on public education, from Hartford to the University of Connecticut. We have thousands of city children who can't read, who can't name the alphabet letters. These are the kids who are supposed to be our workforce of the future.
Without reading, they won't get good jobs. The jobs won't even be here anymore. These children will become adults who go to jail, collect welfare, who don't have health insurance.
It's a disaster. But at Webster there's a small ember of hope.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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